A medium to large sized deciduous tree that grows up to 20 m tall. Trunk is straight with round but uneven and spreading crown. Multiple stems are common. Bark smooth with fissures, is brown or greyish in colour and has large number of lichens. Leaves are bipinnate with two to seven pairs of leaflets, which are pale green in colour, oval-oblong in shape with blunt tip and alternate in arrangement along the branches. Leaves turn yellow with age. Flowers are small, star shaped with five petals, yellow in colour, fragrant and are borne in slender, dense racemes, which look like rat tails. Fruit is a pod, curved, with slight constriction between seeds, black when ripen and twist upon drying to show seeds. Eight to twelve seeds are present in a pod. Each seed is about 0.9 cm wide, dark to bright red, shiny, lens shaped and extremely hard. Ripened pod remains attached to the tree for a long time.
Adenanthera pavonina is found growing on a variety of soils from deep, well-drained to shallow and rocky soils, but prefers neutral or slightly acidic soil. It is capable of quickly forming large colonies in moist closed forests, where the trunk grows very straight. It can be propagated from seed and the seedlings have epigeal germination. Since the seed coat is extremely hard, scarifying the seed surface or immersing the seeds in boiling water for one minute is required to increase the rate and reduce the time of germination, which otherwise may take up to 12 months. Nursery stock out-plants well. Growth rate is fast after the first year.
Timber is hard, strong reddish and durable. In Maldives it is used to build any part of a boat (dhoni). It is also used in carpentry. Although raw seeds are toxic and may cause intoxication, roasted seeds are commonly eaten and are also powdered to make coffee. Young leaves are eaten as vegetables. Children love to collect the seeds to use them in two of their games, namely, "Ohvalhugondi" and "Thinhama". According to some of the elders, seeds were used in the past to weigh gold since nearly all the seeds have a uniform weight of 0.25 grams. The species is a nitrogen fixer so can improve soil nitrogen content.